What Does it Mean to Be Mentally Tough?

words:: Erin Mielzynski

As elite athletes, many aspects of our lives are tested from our body fat percentages, to muscle fibre velocities, to the proficiency of our memories. Each number is evaluated, graphed, and analyzed to identify potential gaps or inequalities, as well as highlight unique strengths. When a physical discrepancy is recognized, we become the specimen under the microscope, subjected to additional tests or treatments by doctors, physiotherapists, surgeons… the list goes on.

However, what is the assessment for mental toughness? We all know that an athlete’s mental game is a significant factor for success, yet there are no centrifuges or force places to quantify mental aptitude. Sadly, if this “gap” is identified for a high performer, there are few supportive resources readily available for them to utilize. Even if a resource is unearthed it is extremely tough to shed the weight of this label because of the inherent difficulty to prove mental growth. How do you determine progress?

To be prepared for the big moments, you need to focus on the little things. Photo courtesy of Helly Hansen.

We often confuse mental toughness with ego, outward confidence, aggressiveness, assertiveness and fearlessness. When speaking of mental toughness people utter words like dominant, stoic, unaffected, or robotic. Many of these traits are highly sought after, however, they are often showcased to hide underlying feelings of fear, anxiety, or uncertainty.

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Throughout my career, I have evaluated countless assessments and tried to address my gaps. This year I decided to add untraditional training to my program—to step outside the mold and face the stigma that is mental fitness. This year I went on the journey of a lifetime to discover what mental toughness truly means and how to train the muscles of my mind with the same diligence that I’ve addressed those of my body. Through an amazing Indonesian retreat, alongside my work with Sports Psychologist Dr. Karen MacNeill, I have changed my conceptualization of mental toughness. Below are five aspects of mental training that I focus on as I exercise my mental athleticism.


For years I have observed people pushing their boundaries and conquering incredible feats. I thought they were simply fearless. As an athlete, fear frustrates me. I feel shame when I’m scared whether that includes surfing on a big day, skiing a blind line or pushing out of the start gate knowing that I could fail. However, I’ve realized that fear comes in many shapes and sizes, and there are many ways to deal with fear. Others may not relate to the fear I feel, however they have struggles of their own.


Courage is the act of feeling fear and doing it anyways. It is courageous to know the consequences, feel your heart race, struggle with perfectionism, yet never let these ideas suppress your excitement for the challenge. I’ve started to try to push myself to get comfortable being uncomfortable.


With Dr. MacNeil, I’ve named my fear, given it a shape and gotten to know it. I’ve started to notice smoky, cyclone Steve make an appearance when I am trying something with high consequences. I used to hate Steve and try to push him away, but he is not my enemy. He is there to keep me safe, sometimes annoyingly so, but I try not to let him take the steering wheel. He deserves a seat as he comes along for the ride, but he doesn’t get to navigate my course. So I simply notice cyclone Steve, thank him for making me aware, and then I try to focus on the task at hand. Finally, I try not to be afraid of failure. The biggest lessons are usually on days I once considered a failure. Each failure is feedback and one step closer to a successful outcome. So fail often, learn your lesson and move forward.

Book: Big Magic

Podcast: 10% Happier- Brene Brown


From the Olympics to the big mountain mecca of Chamonix, Helly Hansen athlete Erin Mielzynski always needs to stay on top of her game. Photo courtesy of Helly Hansen

An Attitude of Curiosity

Meaning: It is important to approach my emotions with an attitude of curiosity. In other words, it is useful to become an objective observer. For example, let’s pretend that I am feeling sad. I become conscious of the feeling, but as soon as I notice that I’m sad and start trying to observe why, the sadness no longer has a hold on me. It becomes something else, a sort of mystery to uncover.

I employ this strategy of curiosity when perceiving other people’s emotions as well. If I perceive a negative reaction, I internally ask, “What is the source?”. If I am at fault, the opportunity to correct the exchange is possible, however, if the source is something extraneous, I can transition to compassion for people and their reactions that previously would have triggered me. I realize that their reaction had a cause, yet often this has nothing to do with me.

Purpose: If I become the observer, my (or other’s) emotions, reactions and feelings no longer have a hold on me. These feelings become something that has a solution as long as I remain patient and curious. As I do this, my reactions begin to dull, I find a state of control, and my emotions pass more quickly. I’m led to self-compassion along with a deeper empathy for those around me.

Tips: I try to watch the rotation of my thoughts, my reactions to different situations and observe without judgement. What did I notice and observe, bad and good? I don’t have to change who I am, but I can change how I react, how I perceive things or simply who I surround myself with.

PODCAST: Finding Mastery: Jewel (Singer/Songwriter- Feb 2017)

“ Life is really about doing an archaeological dig back to our wholeness, back to our real selves.” – Jewel, Finding Mastery

Living By Your Values

Meaning: An endeavour can be all-consuming. My aspirations are at the centre of each decision that I make, and my progress is judged based on results or success. In this high paced lifestyle, living by my own values helps me find balance and measure myself by more than just the outcome. Through struggle, how do I treat others? Who am I becoming on this journey?

Purpose: By figuring out what values are important to me as a person and as an athlete, I am able to govern each decision I make and each reaction I have. I am able to enter a more holistic lifestyle within an incredibly competitive environment. I am able to show up as the person that I want to be each day. My endeavour becomes more than the outcome. I will fail, I will get back up, I will fall, and I will succeed, but I will only hold my head high if I am able to live by my values through it all.

Marcus Caston, mentally prepared—clearly. Photo courtesy of Helly Hansen

Tips: With Dr. MacNeil, I’ve found it helpful to make two lists, one explaining who I want to be as a person or, in other words, what values I want to emulate. The second is a list of my key performance factors, which include what values and traits I want to exhibit and what technical and tactical skills are important to me in a performance setting. Each day I look at my lists and rate myself from 1-10 on each value/skill. When the rankings fall between 1-3, I know that I am falling short and must focus on these aspects. If I rank between 6-8, I give myself a mental high five. I’ve noticed that I don’t have to be perfect to be a good person or to perform well; just good enough. This allows me to finally have a method to measure my improvements and set short term mental goals.


PODCAST: Finding Mastery: Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors Coach- Jan 2019)

“The value that means the most to our team is joy and that’s reflected in the way that we play.” – Steve Kerr, Finding Mastery

Lifting The Noise

Meaning: In today’s society, as we are getting pulled in a million different directions, we are stretched too thin. We are communicating on numerous devices and we are shamed if we don’t respond tout de suite. We have an inherent fear of missing out and according to social media, we are never good enough. This summer, in Indonesia, I entered into 48h of silence. At first my brain was running rampant and the what-ifs plagued me. However, eventually I noticed how many unnecessary words are spoken, how my devices took me out of the present, and how most silences should simply be felt. My spinning world slowed down and my thoughts waited patiently to be discovered.

Purpose: I know that we often don’t have 48h to slow down and settle our minds, so we must find a way to do it quickly or while under pressure. Often our theoretical volume dial gets cranked and we have to discover strategies to turn it down and find peace in the moment.

Tips: I’m working on doing this through yoga, meditation and breath work, but also by spending time alone in nature and saying no more often, which leads to saying yes to myself.


APPS: Sanctuary, Insight Timer, Down Dog, Head Space

Learning To Rise

Meaning: I used to think that resilience meant the ability to get back up after failing, facing my fear and trying again. Too often, however, the scars remain telling the story of my failure and affecting my ability to endure. Now I believe that the essence of resilience lies in how I rise after failure. In a court of law, a person can’t be tried for the same crime more than once; this is known as Double Jeopardy. Yet, as humans we unhelpfully berate ourselves for days, weeks or even years for the same mistake. Often the easy part is the simple act of getting back up and trying again. What needs to be addressed is the way in which I get back up, the narrative that I tell myself, how I treat myself and how I face the challenge.

Rise to the occasion. Photo courtesy of Helly Hansen

Purpose: If you are daring greatly and trying to be exceptional, it isn’t a matter of if but of when failure happens. It is a guarantee. So before the trial begins, it is important to learn how to face failure, how to change the narrative and define who you want to be when you rise.

Tips: If you tried your best, hold your head high and go try your best again, without shame. You don’t have to lean on false confidence, but try to be your best friend, look at reality practically and stop the suffocating mental loop that is trying to hold you back and drag you down.

Book: The Four Agreements

Podcast: Finding Mastery- Brene Brown

“I’ve never met a single person who’s been brave with his or her life and hasn’t had their (butt) kicked”- Brene Brown, Finding Mastery

My definition of mental toughness has changed and is now guided by mental fitness. Fitness is something that I can improve upon, assess, train and evolve. I came to the realization that toughness is within each of us, often hidden in plain sight through vulnerability, silence, bravery and the ability to observe the trajectory of our emotions. Through it all I try to remember, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes up short again and again; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”- Theodore Roosevelt